For Black History Month, Richard Johnson Offers A Tale Of The Underground Railroad With Soaring Spiritual Music
February 11 to 27, 2016
Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street (between Bowery and Lafayette, East Village)
Presented by Luis Rivera in Association with the Gene Frankel Theatre.
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 PM.
$20 general admission, $15 seniors and students
Info: 212-777-1767, Brown Paper Tickets: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2485499
Running time: 1:25. Critics are invited on or after February 12 (official opening)
NEW YORK — In celebration of Black History Month, actor/vocalist Richard Johnson will perform the premiere of his one man play, “Pappy on Da Underground Railroad,” directed by Keith Allen, accompanied by musical director Terry Wallstein. Johnson is best known for his cabaret shows on the music of Nat King Cole and as a stylist of antique gospel music and Negro Spirituals. In the play—which ascends into soaring spiritual music—a “conductor” the Underground Railroad educates and prepares a group of runaway slaves for their journey northward with him. He is met with the daunting challenge of selling freedom to men and women who don’t believe freedom exists for them. Performances will be February 11 to 27 at Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, Manhattan.
Richard Johnson plays an entire cast of characters for this saga, including the main character—a man trained by Harriet Tubman to lead runaway slaves to safety (thus the sobriquet “Pappy”). He also plays Tubman herself and a variety of slaves and slave owners. Much of the play deals with Pappy’s relationship with Tubman and the means by which they guide runaway slaves to freedom in the northern states and Canada. Their voyage is now immortalized in much of the code embedded into spiritual songs, most of which were composed by slaves before the Civil War. Filled with secretive coded references, songs like “Wade in the Water,” “The Gospel Train” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” referred directly to the experience of the Underground Railroad. The lyrics “my home” and “Sweet Canaan, the Promised Land” meant the northern side of Ohio River, which they called “Jordan.” When needed, the escapees walked (“waded”) in water, so that dogs could not smell their tracks. Often they jumped into a “chariot” (wagon), where they could hide and ride away, stopping at “stations,” which could mean safe places along the way. Lyrics mentioning Moses referred directly to Harriet Tubman, who was actually known by that name.
The play weaves seven such Spirituals into the playscript. The song list includes “Wade in the Water,” “Balm in Gilead,” “Oh, Freedom,” “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” “Gospel Train,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Steal Away.”
Richard Johnson is an actor and vocalist who has appeared primarily on the cabaret circuit for the last 16 years. His cabaret shows include “Let Yourself Go (Don’t Tell Mama, The Duplex, musical director David Brunetti), “An Evening with Nat King Cole” (Don’t Tell Mama, The Duplex, musical director David Brunetti), “Love Is” (written with and co-starring Susan Spain, Don’t Tell Mama, Triad Theater, musical director Ian Herman) and “Rejoice” (Church of the Intersession, 155th Street & Broadway; musical director Ian Herman). Like many black singers, Johnson honed his chops in church choirs and he has performed regularly in the Tabernacle Baptist Church of Burlington, NJ. His latest cabaret show, “Rejoice,” was devoted to spirituals and this led him, creatively, to conceive this show. He majored in theater at Adelphi University and trained in acting with Gene Frankel, the Neighborhood Playhouse and Stella Adler. He is the nephew of the visual artist, eminent jazz flutist, poet and photographer Lloyd McNeill.
Director Keith Allen coached Richard Johnson in “For Colored Boys” (an OOB spoof on “For Colored Girls…”) after appearing with him in commercials and a variety show OOB. He has collaborated with Johnson to re-craft “Rejoice” to a theatrical venue by adding characters and scripted dialogue. He studied theater production and acting at NYU, where he received his BFA, and studied directing at the joint NYU/Playwrights Horizon’s Theatre School. He has directed several OOB plays, readings and cabarets in New York.
Musical Director Terry Wallstein is working with Richard Johnson for the first time. Trained at Harvard (BA) and Yale School of Music, he has been a classical composer, musical director of “Technicolor” by Carol Hall (among others), producer and composer of the 1999 musical film “Look at Me” (among others), a singing coach in classical and contemporary vocal styles and staff accompanist at the Juilliard School.
Set and lighting are designed by Stephon Legere. Costume design is by Luis Rivera.